Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mario's Big Gamble on Matt Cooke

There's a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey hanging in my closet. One of the last CCM away whites, after Mario Lemieux brought back the old logo. Absolutely loved that logo and design... and it only looked better with the gold.

Anyone who knows me, knows I'm not a fan of Disney Crosby. I mean, I get why he's a big deal and everything... I just soured on him when he started getting that little prima donna, "Little Lord Fauntleroy" thing about him. But I always liked Mario, so I figured I'd get the jersey customized with the whole "Lemieux 66" eventually.

At this point, I might very well just burn the damn thing.

Why? Well, let's face it... I've pretty much lost respect for Mario Lemieux.

Don't get me wrong... Mario was a great player, a tough player... the dude battled cancer and won, and even came back and played some more. I'm sure he's a great and personable guy. And I will always respect him for that. Nothing can ever take those qualities away.

The problem is, it's hard to separate Mario Lemieux the legend... from Mario Lemieux the hockey executive (and hypocrite).

I understood his problems with the league as a player in the 1990s, how he talked about the woes of the game as a star player... the non-calls on the clutching and grabbing that was taking away from the scoring and the speed of the game. I was all aboard with that, you know? Star players were getting harassed, and sometimes it even seemed like the more they talked to the refs about it, the more the refs seemed to blow them off.

Sure, it was a little whiny on Mario's part, but it was true. There's sound defense, and there's draping yourself on a guy like his last name is Kardashian (and happens to be a girl).

His stance on headshots? Totally respect that. Look at Crosby... out since, what... January, now, with post-concussion symptoms? I also totally respect Crosby's stance on headshots, as well. Duh... he would know, right?

Except... look at the Penguins roster.

Yep... Matt Cooke is still there.

I know that, as owner, Mario is technically Crosby's boss, but how can the kid look over at Cooke, think about what he's going through after a couple of headshots -- and not be thinking, "Ummmmmm... boss? Are we thinking clearly about the contradiction in this?"

Evgeni Malkin said earlier this summer he's glad Matt Cooke is on the team. Translation: "Hell, yeah, I don't want him hitting me next. I LOVE him."

I certainly don't blame him for that sentiment.

I believe Mario Lemieux really is thinking clearly about this situation. And while I'm sure he's feeling a little anxiety over Cooke, he thinks the guy can turn it around this year. Oh yeah... Mario also has a good chunk of money invested in Cooke for another couple years.

You see, Matt Cooke -- when he keeps his elbows closer to his own body -- is actually not a bad hockey player. That's why his repeat offenses last season -- two supplemental disciplinary hearings in six weeks -- even upset his teammates a bit. They were already without their captain and another huge scorer for the foreseeable future, but they lost a contributor for the remainder of the season, and likely failed to win their division because of it.

Greg Wyshynski from Yahoo's Puck Daddy blog had a really terrific piece on Cooke a few weeks ago. He discussed the good things Cooke does off the ice, and how his wife's health scare during last season is making him "a changed man." He's not defending Cooke, just telling a story, discussing Cooke's life off-ice and the whole HBO 24/7 thing.

I kind of called him on it, saying I'd believe Cooke is a changed man when I see it.

He replied that he didn't think there was any shame in "taking a wait-and-see attitude with Cooke."

And... he is 100% right.

However, I also believe there no shame in healthy skepticism. Matt Cooke could be the next Mother Theresa off the ice, but it wouldn't change the bastard he is on it. The only thing keeping Cooke off my "Should've-Had-A-Lifetime-Ban-from-the-NHL" list with Todd Bertuzzi is the fact that he wasn't the last guy to hit Marc Savard... because doctors (perhaps very foolishly) cleared Savard to play, and he took two more hits to the head.

Yet, it doesn't really make him any less responsible for the fact that Savard may never play again. It's a razor-thin line, friends.

Honestly, I hope Greg Wyshynski's right.

Can Matt Cooke change?

The burden of proof is on Matt Cooke, and only Matt Cooke. Lest we forget, he just boarded a guy over the weekend.

"Changed man." Yeah, right. Prove it.

The sad thing is... if/when he screws up... he could very well take Mario's good name (what's left of it) with him.

And then I'm down one nice-looking hockey sweater....

I'll do it, Mario....

I WILL freakin' do it.

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